The most common argument against Jeremy Corbyn is that people wouldn’t vote for him in a general election. And indeed, recent polls show that he is miles behind Theresa May in popularity. This autumn, polls that have asked who would make the best Prime Minister have shown that well over half of respondents prefer Theresa May, while only ten to twenty percent of respondents prefer Jeremy Corbyn over all other party leaders. (This does not translate directly into voting intentions, however, since many of those who dislike Jeremy Corbyn would still vote for Labour in an election; the Labour party is only a few percentage points behind the Conservatives in most polls.)
But why is Corbyn so unpopular? Do people really disagree with his policies?
Several different polls in recent months have attempted to clarify which elements of Corbynite politics the British people don’t like. And the results are startling. It turns out that British people agree with much more of Corbyn’s politics than they disagree. For example, a YouGov poll showed that 67% of British people want government welfare cuts to be reduced or stopped. An ICM poll showed that 47% of people want to renationalise the railways (while only 25% don’t). Older polls from last year show that over 90% of people in the country are in favour of rent control on private housing, 60% of people want the minimum wage to be raised to a living wage, half want to cut tuition fees, and 59% are worried about the NHS and see it as ‘very important’ that healthcare remains free. All of these views are directly aligned with Corbyn’s, and quite distant from the Conservative Party’s.
The issues on which people tend to disagree with Corbyn revolve around three things. The first of these is defence, and the second is immigration. According to the recent ICM poll, 50% of Britons disagree with Corbyn’s policy to stop Trident, 59% want to stay in NATO, and 57% are opposed to cuts in defence spending. Meanwhile, 58% want Britain to stop taking refugees from Syria, and the Brexit referendum result clearly indicates that immigration is a source of apprehension among the population – regardless of whether this apprehension stems from misleading media discourse or any real material threat.
That so many people would let their overall inclination towards Corbyn be so coloured by these two factors is rather surprising given that the issues of defence and immigration affect British voters far less than the issues on which they agree with Corbyn. The UK’s defence budget is only at around 2 percent of GDP. Aside from budget expenditure, even somebody who disagrees with academics who argue that offensive military strategies are likely to lessen rather than increase our security, could hardly claim that the threat of military invasion from abroad is the main challenge that Britons face in their lives. Education, health care, elderly care, housing – these are the issues that concern us the most, and they are the ones where most people are politically aligned with Corbyn.
Immigration is a similarly suspicious concern given that immigrants bring a net economic benefit to the UK, EU immigration does not have a lowering effect on wages in low-paid sectors in the UK, and only around 300,000 more people enter the UK each year than leave it – that is, less than five percent of the country’s population. Logically, even someone who is staunchly opposed to immigration should rate the availability of free healthcare, affordable housing, decent education etc as more important based on the influence of those issues on their life. And indeed, the polls cited above would indicate that they do.
The third issue on which the majority disagrees with Corbyn is benefit payments. As the recent ICM poll shows, 55% want the cap on benefit payments to stay, while Corbyn wants to get rid of it. The benefit cap is an upper limit on the amount of benefit payments any household can receive. The current cap has just this month been reduced to £23,000 per year in London and £20,000 in the rest of the country. This includes an entire household’s payments to cover living costs, housing, transport, food, children’s extracurricular activities, etc.
That a majority of people are opposed to generous benefit payments, yet as we saw above are strongly in favour of more funding for the NHS and a re-nationalisation of the railways, indicates that it is not government spending as such that they are opposed to, but government spending in cash directly to households. Indeed, British Social Attitudes polls show that almost half of respondents want to cut benefit spending for unemployed people, and 61% believe that ‘a working-age couple without children who are struggling to make ends meet should look after themselves, rather than the government topping up their wages’.
That Britons let the question of benefit payments influence their voting preferences is more justified than letting the questions of defence and immigration influence them, at least in terms of government spending. Benefit payments are at around 10-13% of Britain’s GDP – over five times as much as defence spending. Around two thirds of British families receive some kind of benefit payment, so it is understandable that the issue feels important to voters.
Overall, however, the data indicates that most Britons are far more closely aligned with Corbyn’s politics than Theresa May’s. On Trident, immigration and cash benefit payments they tend to agree with the Tories, but when it comes to the NHS, higher education, railways and other public services, rent control and minimum wages, their views most closely match Corbyn’s according to surveys. Of course, these surveys have asked a limited number of questions and have not been able to cover all potential points of agreement or disagreement with Corbyn or other politicians. We have no choice but to assume that the issues these polls have asked about are the issues that Britons most care about. But even so – given that the NHS, education, other welfare services, private housing rents and low minimum wages logically influence our lives much more than defence and immigration, it is strikingly suspicious that Corbyn’s popularity is not higher than May’s. That Britons feel strongly about cash benefit payments is more understandable, but it is doubtful whether this would be a good enough reason for the average British voter to favour the Tories over Corbyn’s Labour would they realise what Corbyn’s policies actually are.
The challenge Corbyn faces is not primarily one of convincing the British population to agree with him on key policies, since most of them already do. The challenge, rather, is to communicate the substantial content of his manifesto for Labour, as well as to counteract the hyped media focus on defence and immigration as supposedly pivotal political issues.